Salma Hayek supports breastfeeding rights of African women
Actress Salma Hayek, perhaps best known as a sex icon with beautiful breasts, has made headlines because – she says – she is standing up for the rights of breastfeeding moms in Africa. Time Magazine reports that, while Hayek was visiting Sierra Leone during a tetanus-vaccination promotional project, she breastfed another woman’s newborn baby. “She did this, she told the (ABC News) camera crew, in part out of compassion for a suffering child, but also to help lift the stigma against breast-feeding in Africa, where men often think women can’t have sex if they’re still nursing. ‘So the husbands, of course, of these women are really encouraging them to stop (breast-feeding),’ Hayek said.”
Is that true? According to a 1995 article (“Women’s Reproductive Practices and Biomedicine: Cultural Conflicts and Transformations in Nigeria”) by Tola Olu Pearce, Ph.D., professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia, many married African women are forbidden the use of contraceptives when engaging in sexual intercourse with their husbands because it is believed that each family unit has a predestined number of offspring; and any attempts to hinder the conception and subsequent birth of that fated group is morally wrong. However, the article goes on to point out that Yoruba Nigerian women are using contraception, not as a means to limit their family sizes, but “as a substitute to the long period of lactation and sexual abstinence for desired birth intervals.” (quote from S. Alade’s “Contraceptive Use and Fertility among Yoruba Women in Urban Nigeria”) This indicates that, despite a religious aversion to contraception, women may be utilizing modern means of birth control in order to keep having sex with their husbands who won’t sleep with lactating mothers.
Almost everywhere Google sent me when I asked it whether or not breastfeeding mothers can have sex, indicated that new mothers can resume sexual activity when their doctors tell them it’s okay. The issue may have less to do with what happens to our breasts during childbirth and more to do with the condition of our vaginas. Ouch! How quickly do these African men want women to resume sexual intercourse anyway, breastfeeding or not? Lactating mothers can have sex…they just may not want to.
Along comes Salma Hayek to tell these men what’s what: “I’m a sex symbol,” she seems to be saying. “And I breastfeed.”
This act of sharing nourishment with a hungry, crying infant has rattled Americans perhaps more than Africans. Time: “But if breast-feeding is taboo in Africa, cross-nursing — in which one woman suckles another’s baby — is taboo in the U.S. While crunchy sites like Mothering.com have exploded with hundreds of giddy posts praising Hayek for promoting the cause of breast-feeding, plenty of online reactions were more squeamish. EW.com gave the YouTube clip its ‘biggest eyebrow raiser’ of the day award.”
Apparently, the sharing of milk in Hayek’s case is something quite scandalous…even dirty. I’ve read many comments on the Web from people who say they admire Hayek. And I’ve read an equal number of comments from people who just want to talk about how big and beautiful her breasts are. Can’t we have an intelligent discussion about a woman’s right to breastfeed a baby, as is the natural order of things? Can’t we let Hayek do with HER body what she will?
I want that same consideration if and when I become a mother. But I too have a lot of things I need to think about before that time comes. Perhaps – as the African men do – I associate my breasts only with sexuality. My husband is a “boob guy.” My breasts bring us both a lot of pleasure in bed. I don’t have the same narrow understanding of my femaleness as some men (and women) do: I don’t think that mothers can’t be sexy and that sex symbols can’t be mothers. I don’t believe there are only two kinds of women, the Madonna and the whore. Still, it’s difficult to think of my breasts as useful in a different kind of way than they are now.
While I may think of breastfeeding as gross – something that looks painful and messy – plenty of other women think of it as beautiful, as a bonding ritual and as a sacred act of mothering (my own mother included). The La Leche League (LLL) was founded in 1956 by seven women after breastfeeding rates had reportedly dropped 20 percent in the U.S. From its mission statement: “LLL believes that breastfeeding, with its many important physical and psychological advantages, is best for baby and mother and is the ideal way to initiate good parent-child relationships. The loving help and support of the father enables the mother to focus on mothering so that together the parents develop close relationships which strengthen the family and thus the whole fabric of society.” It would seem that LLL has found a champion in Hayek.
“I actually think my baby would be very happy to share her milk,” Hayek told ABC News about her decision to breastfeed the hungry baby, who – she claims – was not diseased but who was weak because he hadn’t been nursed by his own mother owing to her lack of milk. Hayek said she plans to instill generosity and kindness in her own daughter, who still receives breast milk from her mother. Hayek also told reporters that her grandmother had encountered a starving baby in similar circumstances and had made the same decision many years ago. Clearly, Hayek’s breasts are a vessel for non-sexual love as well as nourishment.
And according to Time, LLL’s concerns about Hayek’s emergency nursing of the Sierra Leone baby (disease transmission, psychological confusion for the nursing baby, and scarsity of supply for Hayek’s own child) are not legitimate owing to the briefness of the encounter and the physical health of both participants.
So what’s our hangup?